'1917' Co-Writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns On Crafting The One-Shot War Epic [Interview]

1917 is a masterful piece of craftsmanship. Sam Mendes' one-shot epic takes a forward-thinking approach to its depiction of World War I, which is an almost apocalyptic vision. It's a rare vision, too, in which the camerawork and technique are noticeable yet don't detract from the experience. To write the ambitious war movie, Mendes called Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who was a writer on the Mendes-produced Penny Dreadful and recently co-wrote Edgar Wright's next film, Last Night in Soho.

Over the last few years, Mendes and Wilson-Cairns collaborated and wrote a handful of scripts together, but for one reason or another, they never became movies. After what they've accomplished with 1917, we can only imagine what they could've done together sooner. They aimed high and didn't miss their target on this one. Recently, Wilson-Cairns told us about the earliest ideas for 1917, influential war poetry, and the advantages of writing a one-shot movie. [Warning: this Q&A contains spoilers.]

I read that Sam Mendes called you, told you his idea, and then you sat down for hours talking about the movie. What was talked about in that first conversation?

So actually the first conversation that we had, for maybe hours, it started with both of us talking about what we each wanted out of a war movie. How this would be a different kind of war movie, sort of new characters. Then we moved on to the idea of, what is the film really about? All those big conversations. Then we got a map from the time and then we go to Google maps and looked at modern-day France. We worked out the actual physical geographical journey that the boys would go on. And then we talked about some of the set pieces. Sam had in his mind the plane crash and the river, stuff like that. It was all sort of hammered out. The two of us sat and we went A to B to C and we treated the structure and these two characters that we talked about.

I know you previously had read a lot about World War I and II, so what did you want to see in a World War I movie you hadn't seen yet? 

When you read a lot about it, people talk about the ruined French villages that we went to. The soldiers were really shaken by that stuff, so I want to see that. I wanted to see nature in France at that time because nature is living all around us. The contrast between that in a lot of war poetry is very profound, so I wanted to see that kind of thing. I wanted to see other soldiers. I wanted a kinetic story that includes a lot of people's point-of-views rooted in one central character. I wanted to feel like you were passing through other people's lives, that they were there. If you buy a piece of information, they were not necessarily stories, but their stories branched off in a way. I wanted to get it that kind of feel of reality, really.

And then there were other things we just could not get in that one thing. We wanted to see some machine guns, but we couldn't get them in. Sam and I, we were bound by reality. You know the tricky thing writing a movie in real-time, that is how the audience experiences their life. And so there is only so far you can push people before they start to go, "Oh no, I don't think that is what really happens in an hour and half."

So you're bound very much by how much you can show. And also, if you can cram too much in, they really feel the hand of the author. And really every technical aspect of the film, including the script, had to be invisible. You want to be able to watch this story and not necessarily notice how we have made things. Not notice that we've done that, not notice the sound design or Thomas Newman's score until moments where it's pointed out to you. We don't want you to notice the incredible camerawork. I think we were all trying to be invisible, so [it] would feel like [living] 110 minutes in someone else's life. That was our plan.

There is constant motion and action in the movie and only a few stops for exposition or backstory. What were some advantages writing 1917 this way? What were some narrative expectations you didn't have to consider? 

Well, I guess the biggest advantage you have of writing a story like this is how immersive it can be. Writing a story in real-time and one shot, you certainly have the artifice between the audience and the characters. You're not really noticing that, so you have to experience it like real life. And then just from a technical point-of-view, from writing a script, some of the advantages are not obvious at first, but take the scene where Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) dies. It's a sad moment, but traditionally, you would cut away to, you know, Schofield (George MacKay) standing by a grave or you would have dealt with the grief in a way it would be packaged off. But being forced to write that, you then have logically write it and emotionally work through that grief. The audience has to experience it. I think really the thing to me the key advantage is, the audience knows we're never going to cut, knowing that it is going to be relentless and that you're going to have to go on every step of the journey with these two boys.

The death of Blake, it happens sooner than you expected in war movies. It's very shocking.

You know, do you know what else is very interesting? Everyone thinks that it's early, but it's right in the middle of the film. That's the point Blake dies. With the three-act structure and the writer's journey, Sam and I kind of threw that all away. This is a movie in real-time, so why structure it and shoot in that sense? It does not have a traditional structure or anything like that, and that is why I think people feel for the guys early on. But actually, it is right in the middle. It feels so real and natural when you're watching it.

The scene with General Aaron Warner (Colin Firth), it's the only big piece of exposition and sets up everything. How long did it take to get the flow of it right?

The General Aaron Moore scene, we had a rough working version of that really quickly. The scene came together quite quickly because, well, I write quite fast, but we had such a nailed-in structure. Unlike other screenplays where you are usually doing one or two or three different characters, it's usually a straightforward and linear structure. So, we had that done pretty quickly.

I think the General Aaron Moore scene we refined, and often, we refined it by doing the scene to each other before the actors did it. I mean, Colin came in to rehearse with Sam and George and Dean Charles and I and [cinematographer] Roger Deakins as well. We had six months, and I think he probably came in maybe four months before we even started shooting. So, we had him on board and rehearsing. We massage the lines enough, so they would sound right in his mouth. It is hard to say how long we actually took to write the scene because the whole thing's evolving over the six months, so let's put it at it [a] year [Laughs].

1917 trailer finalWhich scenes evolved the most from beginning to end of writing?

Shape-wise, the Aaron Moore scene never took on a different shape. It was the exact amount of exposition we needed. I feel a lot of it actually was taking lines out. I think the scene that changed the most was the truck scene, which was the hardest scene to write. It's when he gets into the truck with all the boys. It was hard to write because what you are trying to do is, you are trying to not have exposition. You don't want to go, "I'm so sad that my best friend just died in my arms. You do not know what it's like to lose someone." You do not want any of that, because it is hacky and it is Hollywood. It's not real life.

Exposition sticks out like a sore thumb in moments like that, so what you are trying to do is turn psychology into behavior. So you are trying to get it so you see his rage, so we came up with the idea of the truck stuck on the road and then having them fish it out. Sam and I were in New York for two weeks, just constantly working on that and pitching different ideas. We probably worked on it twice a day, writing that scene. It probably went through the 14 or 15 versions before we finally thought, well, this is what he's going to do.

Was there any room for changes when the shooting began? Were alterations made on set to get the pace right?

Yeah, absolutely. I was on set every day, but some days I was not needed at all, like some days when we were shooting action. I was constantly there as a sounding board for Sam, and as my job as a writer on set, to look after the dialogue and story structure. He had to look out for the camera and everything. There were definitely days where we had to rewrite stuff and it wasn't working and we had to rethink it. We had a couple of days where we went back and even reshot things. We'd get the shot, but weren't quite happy about it. There'd be something about pacing, so we'd go back and say, "Okay, how else can we stage this or get this information?" So, there was a lot of work on set.

You mentioned expressing psychology. What sort of research did you do to express different perspectives during the war? 

Well in research, I probably read a couple of hundred of first-hand accounts. With regard to the soldiers' opinions in the war, there was definitely every sort of man that fought in the war, you know what I mean? Everybody has their own opinion, their own values and goals. By and large, what I found out was a constant theme was they weren't fighting for king and country. They were fighting for the men next to them, or they were fighting for the families at home. Or they were fighting to protect the people that they loved, be that the men in the trench next to them or their brothers, their sisters. So, that was common, and we tried to show that.

The whole point of writing the story where it has to be reality, you know, everyone thinks they're the hero of their own story, so we all have our villain or a traditional villain. There was pressure from the studio to turn Benedict Cumberbatch's character into a cartoon villain, a monster sending his men to the death. That just wasn't the case. Those monsters didn't really exist. They'd do it out of thinking they were doing the right thing. We wanted to send that message, that idea. The speech Benedict gives you that he'll get another order, it'll be the same thing again. Nobody really knew what was going on, like no overview of the war with hindsight to say, "Oh, we shouldn't have done that." They're in the thick of it, so we just tried to show that.

During the Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) scene, I was really hoping he'd tell him to "fuck off," so I was very happy when he did. What a great payoff. 

[Laughs] We always knew MacKenzie was going to tell him to fuck off. In a Hollywood ending, MacKenzie would pin a medal on his jacket, you know what I mean? Like, "what you've done here, son," but what he's actually done is deliver MacKenzie nightmare news, so he made Colonel MacKenzie realize he sent 400 out of 1,600 men to their death for no goddamn reason. He's delivered the worst news of MacKenzie's week, right? Also, Colonel MacKenzie loves his men, I think. I don't think Benedict plays it too cold. He was never going to be, like, "Thank you for your hard work and being here."

There's been a lot of men-on-a-mission war movies. Did you and Sam Mendes talk about any of them? 

No, we never really...we could not find a lot of one-shot movies and we could not find a lot of films in real-time, and a lot of the mission films tend to be neither of those things. So I think what we are trying to do visually and emotionally was break new ground ever so slightly. We didn't want to repeat what came before. Obviously, movies that influenced me, like Saving Private Ryan, probably was in my psyche and an influence, but we never said, "Oh, this is a film reference." We actually used poetry and art and photographs from World War I. We use that kind of stuff because we were trying to create a feeling as opposed to just a traditional story structure.

Whose war poetry was an influence? 

The one really sticks with me is Wilfred Owen and his poem, "Dolce et Decorum Est," which is Latin for "beautiful to die for one's country." His work is really incredible. Robert Graves and Rupert Brooke, too. Paul Nash and C.R.W. Nevinson, they were actually commissioned artists sent out by the British government to paint war scenes. Their work is staggering. "All Quiet on the Western Front" is an incredible book, "Farewell to Arms" – they played a part in research and understanding these characters. I think that was it. Oh, [John McCare's] "In Flanders Fields." I think those poets are definitely worth looking at if you are interested in war or the human condition.


1917 is in theaters now.